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The Promise of a Better Tomorrow

The Promise of a Better Tomorrow

Due to lack of funding, the percentage of inmates participating in education programs is declining, while the prison population continues to surge

By Garry Boulard

BLYTHE, Calif.
Stretching across 1,700 acres in the middle of the desert near the California-Nevada border, the Ironwood State Prison may seem like a forbidding place, but for at least 10 percent of its 4,600 inmates, it has become an institution of higher learning, offering the promise of a better tomorrow.

“There are three community colleges in California that currently offer distance-education programs to incarcerated students,” said Cheryl Fong, a consultant on the Ironwood project with the California Chancellor of Higher Education’s Office. “But the one that is up and running at Ironwood is the oldest, not only offering basic GED instruction, but also a curriculum that makes it possible for an incarcerated student to actually earn their associate’s degree.”

Classes at Ironwood are taught by faculty members from nearby Palo Verde Community College, in the town of Blythe, which is also offering classes at Ironwood’s sister facility, the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison.

Although the actual number of inmate students — 10 — who have left the program and the prison is small, so is the recidivism rate: “So far only one has returned,” Fong said. “Which means that right now the recidivism rate is 10 percent.”

That’s 10 percent stacked against a recidivism rate that exceeds 75 percent in some parts of the country.

For educators and prison-reform advocates, such numbers may seem statistically insignificant. But measured against an exploding national-prison population and the growing number of men and women released each year — more than 600,000 last year — they offer a sparkle of hope.
“Any program that is geared in the direction of offering inmates some form of education is a good program, because it increases the likelihood that they will not return to prison once they are released,” said Dr. John Garmon, the former president of Vista Community College in Berkeley, Calif., and a longtime advocate of prisoner-education programs at community colleges. “By not having such programs, we are missing a great opportunity to give a person who has gotten in trouble a second chance in life.”

Although the exact number of community colleges currently offering some form of prison education is not known, the number of inmate programs at two-year schools has increased in recent years, said Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Almost every program is different, depending upon available funding, local conditions and, in some cases, the level of political support. In Louisiana, for example, prison education is largely confined to GED instruction offered by whatever two-year vocational technical school is near the prison. In Wyoming, prisoner-education services also center around GED instruction, primarily conducted at the Fort Washakie jail by faculty members from nearby Central Wyoming College in Riverton.

“The Fort Washakie jail is a joint tribal facility that is run by the Arapaho and Shoshone tribes, which sits on the same reservation that is used by Central Wyoming College,” said Dr. Ed Boenisch, deputy director of the Wyoming Community College Commission.

In 2003, 17 inmates received GED training from Central Wyoming College faculty, a number that Boenisch said he expects to grow as the state’s two-year schools eventually increase their offerings to prisoners.

“Primarily we have focused on GED instruction,” Boenisch said. “But there has been talk about offering more classes in the future, especially in the area of college credit.”

Although prison education has long been a traditional higher-education concern, with more than 350 individual two- and four-year college programs offering classes to 38,000 students nationally by the early 1990s, many of those programs shut down or drastically reduced their efforts after the U.S. Congress eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners who wanted to take classes.

“The loss of Pell Grant funding has proved to be devastating,” said Garmon, who has worked extensively in prison education in both New York and Nevada. “In some cases, the states have stepped in. But usually not to the degree where they were able to replace what was lost with the elimination of the Pell Grants.”

According to the Urban Institute, roughly 94 percent of the money spent on prisons, which has exceeded $22 billion in recent years, has been earmarked for construction and maintenance. The remaining 6 percent has gone to prison-based education programs.

As a result, the percentage of prisoners participating in any kind of education program has declined — during the very same years in which prison populations have surged.

In 1991, 31 percent of inmates nationally participated in some type of education program.

By the late 1990s, that number dipped to 27 percent, and some educators think it may be below 25 percent today.

“That is why you are seeing more and more community colleges getting involved,” said the AACC’s Kent. “They are responding to a need in their communities, which is basically one of the things that community colleges do best.”

But the programs have encountered some skepticism. Many state lawmakers have opposed prison-education programs on the grounds that they ease what is supposed to be an arduous experience: serving time for committing a crime.

“It is not supposed to be anything other than a horrible place for them,” Louisiana State Sen. Robert Adley remarked several years ago when asked about prison-education classes. “It ought to be a rough time, harsh time, the absolute worst thing a person could go through.”

Others have complained about public money being used to fund educational programs.

In 2003, a local chapter of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association launched a public broadside against the Ironwood-Palo Verde Community Colleges program, saying it was an outrage that prisoners were provided state-funded education at the expense of “people in the community who pay taxes.”

But while such opinions may continue to represent the majority view in most parts of the country, Fong said, the commitment and resolve of many of the inmates who have taken such classes speaks for itself.

“Many of the students are highly motivated,” she said. “Some of the teachers have told me that they are among the best and most interested students they have ever taught. And we are talking about low-tech learning, without any computers, where the students are writing all of their assignments by hand.”

Fong went on to say she thinks the inmates are grateful for the chance to be treated like college students — even if it’s happening while they’re in jail.

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